I was an unhappy teenager, among lonely people, in love with a charismatic leader – had I joined a cult?

IIt’s 1994, I’m in a school gym, 16 years old, examining the crossing lines for basketball, badminton and tennis because staring at the floor feels less confusing than seeing the spectacle unfolding in front of me. A woman, who I think is very old but probably in her 30s, is sweating and yelling: “I’m six. I love to fuck.” People are clapping, cheering and saying she’s beautiful. She’s screaming at the ceiling and pushing her pelvis. I feel rejected. Nothing is rougher for a teenager than an adult bumping, especially in public.

I had ended up there because I was depressed after my parents’ bitter divorce. I had stopped going to school, spent the whole day in bed, mostly in tears. About then, an old friend of my mother’s from the 60s – whom I will call Margaret – reappeared. They rekindled their friendship and Margaret began helping my mother through the emotional aftermath of her divorce. “Sarah could benefit from being educated,” she said.

I first met Margaret in one high-rise parking in the center. She almost flew over it with outstretched arms and pulled me into an embrace with such warmth and affection that I had to stop myself from crying. My savior, an angel with long blond hair, who drives a white Rolls-Royce. She took me back to her house where I felt as if I had been let into a wild and colorful world full of love. She described herself as a white witch – a beacon – but always kept you guessing about what she really believed. She would make a proclamation one day, only to contradict it the next. She called herself a strict vegetarian, but sometimes ate meat; she could afford anything she wanted, but loved shoplifting hats. She just walked out of the store wearing one, as if the hat already belonged to her. Being with her felt exhilarating, like spinning in a magical whirlpool.

The first few days of training were brutal. Thirty volunteers in the room helped the nine interns. Each of us was given a badge with a derogatory nickname on it that was used to taunt us. I remember standing on a small stage while the adults told me that I was nothing: you are bolshie, spoiled, self-centered. When I said my dad was prone to violent outbursts, I was told to stop being manipulative. I was cajoled, taunted, picked apart until I felt completely broken and yet the thought of going out never crossed my mind. I don’t remember if the door was locked or not, but it didn’t matter. This would be my cure. There would be one before and one after.

One day the light dimmed. We sat in a circle, closed our eyes to confess. Who has been raped? Someone cheating on their spouse? Murdered someone? Talk about losing your virginity. We were working on writing a new life contract, when the humiliating name tag was removed. This was followed by a death/rebirth ceremony where each trainee dressed up as a fantasy version of themselves to be carried around the room. All the while they belted out songs by Whitney Houston and we danced like crazy. One intern was dressed as Shirley Temple, sucking his thumb and yelling, “Fuck you, Hitler!”

Sarah Duguid today.
“The indoctrination formed invisible threads that silently guided my actions” … Sarah Duguid today. Photo: Leila Amanpour

“I love you,” Margaret said, staring intently into my eyes. I looked back at her and wanted that feeling for the rest of my life.

The training took place in two five-day bursts. The last day felt like the climax of all this “work”. It’s hard to describe how I felt. It was as if my mind opened up, as if it had been emptied. Perhaps because I was still a child, I experienced this more intensely, more literally than the adults around me. I saw the ideas from the training physically enter me, take root in my brain, and then rise like water through the egg-shaped space of my mind. I felt rebooted, reprogrammed, like the old version of me had been erased and a new version implanted.

Margaret often peppered her talk with references to Freud, and the central theory of the training seemed to come from the Freudian notion that accidents are not accidents but rather the expression of an unconscious desire or motive. If you spill coffee on your computer, is the real reason you can’t talk about feeling overworked? But for the trained, this idea became an extreme doctrine, a crazy, megalomaniacal belief that we create everything that happens to us. The sick create their illness (through anger or negativity), the abused create their humiliation, the dead create their death. A bride might reflect on why she created rain on her wedding day. A daughter can investigate why she created her mother to abandon her. Margaret told me about a young girl she knew who was raped. “It was hard for her to understand that she created the rape in her life,” she said. “She just really, really wanted to be a victim. We worked her hard.” When Margaret was robbed, she framed it, saying she had given away her jewelry to a man with a gun she didn’t know. The whole terrifying experience slid off her like oil. I was asked to think about why I had created violence in my life, which I gratefully did because it was what would set me free. What had I done to make my father so out of control? In Margaret’s eyes, the aggressor became the victim and the victim the aggressor.

With this new knowledge, along with a mix of popular psychology, new age ideas, Buddhism, and anything else that sounded good, my world turned upside down. I lived with Margaret for two months and went everywhere with her. We went shopping, to the hairdresser, in markets; we stopped for full-course lunches and as she spoke I inhaled her knowledge as if it were more sustaining than the air I breathed. Margaret’s house was often full of visitors, the lost and lonely, the people who wanted to fix, but while they were just visiting, I was part of her inner circle. It felt like a privilege, but anyway we were all equally dependent on her.

Margaret did not advertise her education – the word simply spread. Every week there was a breakfast where women sat around the round dining table to talk, a pot of coffee and a bowl of boiled eggs between them. Curious, I hovered by the bookshelf and pretended to read. It seemed so grown up, so sophisticated. They talked about men and sex, illness and death. They analyzed each other and sometimes accepted the other’s perspective with grateful humility; at other times the analysis met resistance. Arguments would occur. But when Margaret spoke, everything seemed to stop. Heads turned to her like sunflowers seeking the sun as she calmly spoke her thoughts in a deep, authoritative voice. Once or twice the women made advances on me to join, but I avoided it. I was frightened; and anyway, I just wanted Margaret.

Sometimes there were strange ceremonies for old age, or pagan weddings officiated by Margaret, her version of marriage far more exalted than anything the corrupt soul of the state could offer. Even more so at times Margaret could be mean. If anyone crossed her, they would be cast out of existence as surely as God cast out Lucifer.

Finally, my time was up. I had to go home, return to school, and to being the rebellious, argumentative girl who failed academically and was constantly threatened with expulsion. But back at school, that rebellious girl did not reappear. I became a straight-A student. I was organized, punctual, hard working. “You’re so helpful,” cooed my English teacher as I trotted back from the photocopier with the Shakespeare handouts still warm in my hands. For anyone on the outside, exercise saved me. But underneath it felt like an out-of-body experience. I had no idea who I had become. My belief system was so off the wall that I didn’t fit in anywhere. I just had to pretend.

At the time I was studying for Sociology A level. In my A4 binder, written on erased paper, was the definition of a cult: a group whose beliefs are seen by most of society as strange or unorthodox, and whose members show unusual or excessive devotion to some person, idea or cause. I had been educated to know better and yet … whatever situation I was in I would always think: what would Margaret say? What would Margaret want me to do? I used to call her and during the hour or so we spent on the phone I felt normal again, like I belonged somewhere.

Over time, the effects faded. Eventually I even scoffed at being educated, made fun of some of the sillier “processes”. But I kept in touch with Margaret. We could spend hours on the phone. When I started out as a writer, she even let me move in with her for a while, rent-free. She was kind and generous, but I also began to see more of her darker side. People were either her friend or her enemy. A couple of times she cut me open with her words, but I was undeterred. It just made me work harder to stay in the fold.

Twenty years after I had been educated, a relationship ended so brutally and unexpectedly that I found myself falling apart again. I poured out my sore, angry heart to Margaret. I let her read all my private emails. I wailed and moaned, told her everything. But then I got a phone call from the man in question who – knowing how he was going to get to me – had also been on the phone with her. He repeated the nasty things she said about me and with delicious, palpable pleasure made it clear that she had set him free and put the blame on me. He was even happier because, after all, weren’t her words the very words of God to me? I felt gutted. I was shocked, speechless. I had been educated. I had submitted. He didn’t have that. Why would she turn on me when I had done everything she wanted?

“Well, she always preferred men to women,” a former friend told her. Suddenly Margaret, with her boringly conventional gender preferences, felt disappointingly human.

Duguid at the time of
Duguid at the time of the “training”.

The betrayal shook me so deeply that it took me to a small cell-like room in the basement of a church, opposite a psychotherapist. “It was a cult,” the therapist said. “My mother wouldn’t have taken me to a cult,” I said. “It was a cult,” she kept saying. “And your mother got caught up in it too.” But why would I join a cult? “Perhaps Margaret offered you the sense of a family, just as you had lost your own.” The therapist also named the vivid, physical experience I had in the training room: brainwashing. Even so, I never told anyone. I certainly did not discuss it with my mother.

At this point I thought the experience was behind me but I realized I was far from free. The indoctrination still formed invisible threads that silently guided my actions, shaped my perception of the world. It took years but gradually I untangled myself, realized what I felt in that school gym had absolutely not been love. It also took me years to realize how angry I was at Margaret, but I never told her. I didn’t know where to start. I feared my injury would simply slide off her. Instead, I just stopped talking to her, as did my mother.

A few years later Margaret died. By this time I had small children. The logistics of going to her funeral were complex and expensive, but I made the plans. “Why are you even leaving? She was horrible to you,” said a friend.

At the funeral, strangers told me in soft, reverential tones that they had managed to visit Margaret on her deathbed, to receive final words of guidance. At that moment I felt sorry for her, I needed to do all that while she lay dying. I wondered who needed who the most. But when the service started, I surprised myself. I shed real tears, felt real loss and for a few hours it was like I was back there reliving those strange two months of my teenage years.

Sarah Duguid’s second novel, The Wilderness, is out now, published by Tinder Press

#unhappy #teenager #among #lonely #people #love #charismatic #leader #joined #cult

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